Chip Kelly Update: A Vision Takes Shape

Evan Mathis, ex-Eagles

In his first two years as an NFL coach, Chip Kelly was a whirlwind of change, challenging the conventional wisdom on everything from players’ food to game tempo to the team schedule (giving his team Monday off after Sunday games instead of the usual Tuesday).

And while Kelly’s “college boy” style was mocked at first, much of the NFL has been following his lead. Sports Science is spreading through the NFL (the Cowboys just bought a virtual reality training system), his last two QB coaches have been hired as offensive coordinators by Miami and Oakland, Denver is teaching Peyton Manning the read-option, and even Bruce Arians is adopting the no-huddle.

In two areas, though — the roster and play-calling — Kelly has been surprisingly conservative, and these two areas are related. Kelly needs particular players and particular matchups to make his style of football work. In 2013, his first team kept 45 of the 53 players on Andy Reid‘s last roster, and the team did not show much in the way of read-option plays (especially after Nick Foles replaced Mike Vick at quarterback) or of the aggression on extra points and fourth downs that earned him the nickname “Big Balls Chip.”

Kelly's June 9 press conference

from video PhiladelphiaEagles.com

Kelly’s June 9 press conference

Some of this was common sense — the Eagles were a very talented team despite their 4-12 record in Reid’s last year, so why discard everybody? Some of it, I think, was wise caution. He knew he was making a big leap into the big leagues, which is why he hired two coordinators with long NFL careers and stayed relatively traditional in his schemes and formations.

It takes a while to adjust and feel out how the new competition works. At Oregon, Kelly had two years as offensive coordinator to get his bearings before he took over as coach. It looks like 2013-4 were his equivalent in the NFL.

Now Kelly is making his move, and none too soon. He’s almost halfway through his five year contract, and Philadelphia is not a patient city. Fans have waited 54 years since the city’s last NFL championship, and owner Jeffrey Lurie has given Kelly everything he wants: money, staff and full control over player personnel. There are no excuses left.

Aside from quarterback, a position that every team has trouble filling, there are no major holes left on this team. Kelly saw to that by acquiring Kiko Alonso at inside linebacker and six DB’s (along with a new DB coach) this off-season.

Some of Kelly’s caution was the result of those holes in the defense. When asked about going for it on fourth down at Oregon, he usually said something like “We were confident that our defense could hold them if we didn’t make it.” Given the Eagles’ vulnerability to long passes and on third-and-long plays the past two years, no reasonable observer could have had that confidence.

The front line remains rock solid. Once Cory Undlin solidifies this secondary, I expect that Kelly will be much more aggressive in his offense as well.

The Eagles are still in OTA’s, with players wearing shorts and avoiding contact, but the rough shape of this team is starting to emerge.

Free agent slot cornerback Walter Thurmond has moved to safety, and appears to be the front runner to start alongside Malcolm Jenkins, even though he has never played safety before. Kelly expressed pretty naked impatience with 3rd year safety Earl Wolff‘s return from “mini-micro-fracture surgery” last year, noting that the team doctor had cleared Wolff to play weeks ago.

Byron Maxwell's numbers

from video, PhiladelphiaEagles.com

Byron Maxwell’s numbers

Nolan Carroll, who replaced Bradley Fletcher last year starting with the fourth quarter of game 15, is competing with second round pick Eric Rowe and slot CB Brandon Boykin for the starting outside CB job opposite Byron Maxwell, and Carroll has the initial edge.

Carroll’s hybrid linebacker/DB role in the team’s Dime package last year will likely be filled by Alonso, who has great ball-hawking skills. Swing linebackers Travis Long and Marcus Smith II are competing to back up Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin at OLB, although Smith has been hobbled with soft-tissue injuries.

The big news this week was Kelly releasing dissatisfied Pro Bowl offensive guard Evan Mathis. This is especially sad for sportswriters because Mathis is hilarious and very active on Twitter and Reddit, as well as being an excellent zone-scheme guard. On the other hand, he was already the NFL’s eighth-highest-paid starting guard and the oldest at 34, and he missed seven games with a knee injury.

Mathis signed a five-year, $25.5 million contract in 2012 and had two years left. He wanted more money and the team gave his agent Drew Rosenhaus permission to try to find a trade deal, but he couldn’t find any team willing to bargain. Reportedly, last September the team had offered him $1 million more per year for his last two years, but he turned it down. After Kelly replaced Howie Roseman as GM, Mathis changed his mind but Kelly had taken the offer off the table.

Rosenhaus orchestrated holdouts or partial holdouts by previous Eagles Terrell Owens and DeSean Jackson. Both saw their on-field performance (and reputations) suffer but signed decent contracts — after the Eagles released them. This conflict will probably hurt both sides. Evans is very unlikely to get $6 million or more from another team, while the Eagles enter the new season having cut both guards and replacing them with substitutes who had rocky years last year (Allen Barbre at left guard, and likely Matt Tobin at right.)

Clearly, Kelly’s caution period is over. Of those players on Reid’s last roster, only eight are projected to start this year, and four of those are not for certain: Riley Cooper, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and Brent Celek. Releasing Mathis may be his biggest gamble of the off-season, if for no reason other than the fact that he got nothing in return.

It certainly sends a message though, one spelled out by former Eagles president Joe Banner:

Featured photo from video, courtesy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com

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Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit's newest book is "Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly's Football Revolution" (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of "The Tao of Chip Kelly" (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.

  • hokieduck

    Go Eagles. Go Chip.

    From other posts I have read from the Philly media, it seems that the remaining team members, in particular the veterans, are absolutely buying in to the demands and expectations of a Chip Kelly team. They want those around them to be there every day working hard. Love it.

    • Mark Saltveit

      I think so. You always have to wonder if some of them don’t but are scared to say anything. Evan Mathis was considered fully bought in, and mocked DeSean for his little rebellions a year ago.

      But I think Chip is pursuing the radical idea that a team should consist of willing players there to win and enjoy football, not mercenaries or slaves. He’s kind of the Khaleesi of the NFL.

      • Kevin

        Always enjoy your work Mark. Good stuff as usual. I know you are very familiar with Chip, has anyone every deconstructed his roster moves / “hostile” takeover of the front office (especially if you listen to sport talk radio in Philly) with a slant towards the latest thinking in organizational development and leadership? I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, books like “Good to Great”, “One Thing”, anything by John Maxwell, Blanchard, the army’s leadership book, etc., and it seems that Chip is attempting to build a highly functional and highly performing team that is always willing to grow. All of his moves can be explained through many of these concepts. The Philly media finally picked up on the “growth mindset”.

        I actually find it fascinating and exciting. Most leaders don’t have the commitment or balls to pull this off. Change is hard and scary and normally everyone reverts back to a comfort zone or safe place at some point and certainly producing 10 win seasons is a safe place for an NFL coach. But Chip has extraordinary commitment to his vision and an unwillingness to compromise and I find that refreshing. And I think all of the players on the roster are starting to feel the same way…. Especially with the recent quotes from team leaders Jenkins and Peters about Mathis, they go beyond the normal benign, it’s his business, to a more biting, you should be here working with the team, which is highly unusual from players.

        • justanotherdummy

          Chip is taking a big risk, but I am going to throw some praise at Jeff Lurie as well. He has handed over the keys for a billion dollar operation to a coach whose ideas might not ‘fly” I believe they will, I think Chip is a stud and is going to win big. But let’s remember who is funding it

        • Mark Saltveit

          Yes, I talk about this aspect of Chip’s program a lot in my new book “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution,” which comes out at the end of July.
          I was once hired as a “re-engineering” specialist back in 2002 when that was a buzzword, so I know a bit about these organizational innovations, and I’ve never seen a company implement new organizational theory as thoroughly as Chip has done in Philadelphia.

          A lot of companies talk about it, and buy copies of the latest trendy book for everybody, but not that much change happens because different managers don’t buy in — they would lose power, or part of their budget, so they end up fighting it and it’s just new paint on old walls. Kelly is walking the walk.

          • douglas fur

            How much of this corporate management theory comes out of Kelly’s experience at Oregon? I often wonder if the Knight/Belloti deal included “how to run a successful business” models from Nike.

      • Ramiroquaaii

        Obviously there is the “culture” thing. But, IMO, money was the real factor in Mathis release.

        The team needs money to resign some key players like Cox, Kendricks (if he stays), and Bradford if he stand out.

  • TJ111

    NFL is all about agents and negotiation-even after the contract is signed.
    Chip Kelly’s changed that game. Now we’ll see if he can make it stick.